Gentle Giant Podcast

This is my podcast on Gentle Giant, one of my favorite bands.  Often overlooked, they are a stellar example of Progressive Rock.  I also wanted to continue the discussion on Prog Rock I started with my post on King Crimson–so in this podcast I briefly demonstrate some examples of things that make progressive rock progressive.  If you like the sounds, go listen to the band!  I’d suggest Three Friends (1972) or Free Hand (1975) as good starting points.  A lot of Gentle Giant information can be found at their fan wiki: for example these interviews.
To hear how Gentle Giant has directly influenced a musician such as myself check out this track from my own prog band, Hot Cognition:

It features the cycling meter technique I mentioned pointed out in “Glass House”, as well as the polymeter technique I demonstrated with “Just the Same”

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King Crimson: The Embodiment Progressive Rock

If I am asked what has influenced me as a musician more than anything…well the answer would be Chopin. But, truthfully, I only fell in love with Chopin after I started eating and breathing everything music. When I was a kid I heard great music, even learned to play much of it on piano, but never really recognized it. I didn’t understand music yet, and I think largely because I had never written music of my own. Sure, I had played keys, trumpet, and percussion in bands and orchestras throughout life; but compositional nuance and skill was still something I took completely for granted. When I went to college the first time I had a incisive paradigm shift. I discovered philosophy and psychology; the first academic topics I could actually enjoy reading about. I self-applied those topics with vigor. Art suddenly became important, very important—meaning of life important. And during this age of epiphany some of my bandmates turned me on to something that would lead me on a journey towards musical enlightenment that I am still undertaking. It was something that connected all the (classical) music theory I had ever learned into modern music, like plugging a lamp into an outlet. The hand that plugged it in was Progressive Rock.

I decided to focus on King Crimson for this piece because no other band quite encapsulates Progressive Rock like they do. Granted, they aren’t my favorite prog band but they represent the gestalt of 70s prog like no other. The prog rock movement has its origins with a band called Procol Harum (coincidently one this year’s nominees to the rock and roll hall of fame) and their song “Whiter shade of pale”. The early spirit of progressive rock is like taking the instrumentations and drugged out attitudes of the late sixties and sending it back in time to baroque days. The excellent BBC documentary Prog Rock Brittania describes the average prog rocker more of a classical music reject (or rebel rather). Songs begin to resemble concertos, with singular movements that could eat the length of two modern pop numbers whole. In all, you see a lot of bands interested in plugging rock and roll into classical theory: you hear music that merges the complicated, nuanced hand of a romantic composer with the attitude and instrumentation of rock. Some of my favorite bands from this period include: Yes, Gentle Giant, PFM, Gryphon, Il Balleto di Bronzo, Pink Floyd, Nektar, Birth Control, Yezda Urfa, Quella Vecchia Locanda, and Happy the Man (I tried to keep it to a small sampling). But as Prog Rock Brittania as well as my personal ears suggest, the most intimidating, scary, and eclectic of all prog bands was King Crimson.

King Crimson’s debut album In the Court of the Crimson King opens with one of Prog Rock’s greatest monsters: “21st Century Schizoid Man”. Within its duration this masterpiece swings the entire gamut between barely contained atonal chaos and synchronized, syncopated musical acrobatics and back. I only wish I could have seen the crowd reaction after King Crimson used this song to open for the Rolling Stones in July of 1969. From Pete Sinfield’s recounting, there was a moment of utter shock and silence before the crowd even knew to applaud. As Bill Bruford, drummer for Yes and King Crimson, put it “nobody knew that rock musicians could play like that”. It was my personal introduction to Prog Rock as a whole, and exactly where I think anyone should be introduced to the movement (even though I probably wasn’t hooked until I heard Gentle Giant’s Three Friends album).

One of King Crimson’s founding members Pete Sinfield reflected on the band’s ethos, “if it sounded anything at all popular, it was out, so it had to be complicated, it had to have more expensive chords…if it sounded too simple we made it more complicated, we’d play it in 7/8 5/8 just to show off…”. I think this summarizes the band’s, as well as Progressive Rock as a whole’s, greatest strength and weakness. I absolutely adore the musicianship and spirit of progressive rock, but many a prog band’s blatant disregard for accessibility to anyone other than the musical elite was surely a mark of hubris. King Crimson does an amazing feat of musically reinventing what isn’t broken album after album. Islands is jazzy, Red is a hard rock milestone, Beat incorporates synth-pop, and even their new albums (they’re still going) tread into industrial and electronic territories. How were people suppose to keep up with this amorphous musical machine? Evidently they weren’t.

Progressive rock was soundly defeated by the punk generation in its homeland of Great Britain. And not just defeated, but caricatured and ostracized. Excessive and self-indulgent are often terms that come up to describe prog rock, and they perhaps aren’t too far off the mark. Still punk rock (which I find equally excessive and self-indulgent in different ways) tried to bury progressive rock in the UK and the States: and did a pretty good job of doing it. That is until the internet age.

Progressive Rock has enjoyed a mild modern-day resurgence (IE Mars Volta, Porcupine Tree), but mostly in prog influenced genres. Prog Metal (Dream Theatre, Tool), Math Rock (Battles, Don Cab), Djent (Animals as Leaders), and even some Jazz Fusion Artists (Hiromi Uehara) commonly cite groups such as King Crimson as influences. Even artists in unrelated genres have been influenced by the music of King Crimson in particular. Kurt Cobain acknowledged the album Red as a big influence, and Kanye West sampled “21st Century Schizoid Man” in his song “Power”.

I also strongly identify King Crimson with Robert Fripp, who would be the constant member in the constantly evolving line-up of musicians. His trademark guitar soundscaping technique, lovingly coined Frippertronics, was actually invented by Brian Eno. Eno and Fripp’s collective journey into guitar-scaping can be seen as foundational elements of post-rock bands like Sigur Ros.

Progressive Rock gets written off in Music History all too frequently and I’m not sure why. It had a short run, but its influence extends just as far into modern day as any other breed of Rock and Roll. While bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, Rush, and Jethro Tull managed to achieve mainstream success, many music historians handle them separately from the musical movement that bore them.  In my mind, King Crimson is the true poster boy of prog rock: alienating, intimidating, but undeniably genius. In all, I think by far the most damning insult to prog rock is that it easily construed as pretentious. And this is absolutely true, but you know what else is easily construed as pretentious? Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and Chopin.

Innovations in Electronic Music: The Synthesizer

I’ve played piano for about as long as I’ve had memory. And over the years I’ve accumulated a small collection of ‘keys’ that I cherish: including a couple synths. Synthesis has always been a challenge to me; I never feel quite at home improvising on a keyboard unless it has very ‘piano-like’ characteristics (I thrive on high contrast dynamics, decay, and sustain that doesn’t translate to organs or synths). This is something bandmates rarely seem to understand. I rather dislike that synthesizers get lopped in with other keyboards so frequently because they are truly a unique beast.

I owe a huge debt to early synth pioneers such like Donald Buchla or Bob Moog: heck, modern music owes a huge debt to them. It was an incredible step towards having an orchestra at your fingertips. I remember my first MIDI sequencer (Fruity Loops) opening huge doors in my creative efforts, largely because it had tons of different instruments I could choose from to arrange. Even though synthesizers still don’t do a fantastic job at mimicking other instruments (I like my synths sounding like synths) the synthesizer far predated sampled software instruments like those I mentioned in Fruity Loops. Even MIDI technology itself was a byproduct of the synthesis revolution, as Peter Manning points out in his book Electronic and Computer Music. MIDI alone has had a tremendous impact on music creation: I dare go as far as to say that MIDI sequencers are the sheet music of the 21st century.

Synthesizers are also a huge precursor to electronic music. While electronic music can really include anything that has been processed, synthesizers expanded the spectrum of sounds possible. When you think about it, a synthesizer is essentially a system created for playing electricity as an instrument. Spacey sounds that could never have come from an acoustic instrument would be a common element of Krautrock and other precursors to modern EDM. And while pure electronic music is the most obvious application of synths, they are heard in all modern genres of music today. In fact, when I think of synth sounds, I actually visualize more jazz fusion than anything else thanks to the soaring lead sounds of greats like Chic Corea or Jan Hammer.

So, as I mentioned earlier I owe a lot to synthesizers (even if I’m not great at crafting my own sounds with them). When it comes to innovations that shaped electronic music you’d be hard pressed to find something as impactful as the synthesizer.

Kraftwerk: Autobahn (1974)

I’ll go ahead and confess, I’ve never been the biggest fan of Kraftwerk. My first exposure to them was driving a Uhaul moving from Arkansas to Florida. I had discovered a plethora of Krautrock bands that I love (IE Can, Nektar, Eloy) several years earlier and kept seeing Kraftwerk’s name come up. I thought driving between states would be the closest thing to an Autobahn I had–so I put in the album as I set off. About 15 minutes in, I thought I was slowly loosing my mind.

I don’t dislike electronic music, nor do I hate Kraftwerk. In fact, I have a real musical ‘scratchy spot’ at the intersection of pure electronic and acoustic textures. Electronic drums with a real string quartet soaked in reverb, or even Kraftwerk’s airy flute, make me drop everything I’m doing and listen. The real problem I have with most electronic music (which in its defense is typically made for dancing’s sake) is the repetition. It’s like my views on human mortality: length alone does not give anything meaning. I’ve listened to a number of Kraftwerk albums, and I frequently find sonic textures that I enjoy: I just think I’d just like them much more with some editing.

Now, for Kraftwerk, what they were doing must have been exciting and new. Their string of albums leading up to Autobahn introduced new sounds and very creative uses of synthesizers. I could see the opus of “Autobahn” having a much greater impact on someone who had never heard electronic percussion or the warm swell of ‘futuristic’ synths before. After watching “Kraftwerk and the Electronic Revolution” things like the “motor beat” employed in Autobahn and Trans Europe Express made much more sense. But to me, it still sounds like electronic music of the time is in puberty: awkward, somewhat bull-headed, yet not really sure what it’s doing yet.

Kraftwerk’s innovation is applying the cutting-edge technology of their day to music. Before Kraftwerk, electronic music sounds very avant-garde (see: Stockhausen) and completely distanced from the musical traditions of tonality, rhythm, and harmony. Kraftwerk takes this technology and applies it over the course of Kraftwerk 1 & 2 to more standardized musical sensibilities. The usage of electronic drum beats and other forms of synthesis had obvious influence on EDM to come. But, I think (along with other Krautrock bands like Faust and Tangerine Dream) perhaps the biggest influence of Kraftwerk is in establishing the genre of electronic music to come comes in the approach to song structure and focus.

As a pianist and composer it’s very hard for me to listen to material and not unconsciously lapse into ‘taking dictation’ of melodies and harmonies. This is probably why my first exposure to Kraftwerk was mildly maddening; I couldn’t see the forest because of the trees. Albums like Autobahn, Faust IV, and Phaedra aren’t interested in the notes or song structure. Song structure in electronic music can often be more like a soundscapes; it doesn’t require active attention or digestion of the musical content.  In fact, I find analyzing these works musically misses the point. This is a tradition that would be carried on by people like Brian Eno and into future genres like IDM.

I like listening to electronic music to hear sounds used creatively and to hear textures that can’t exist in real acoustic spaces. As both a composer and engineer, new textures are like gold to me. Kraftwerk definitely played a vital role in bringing the possibilities of electronic music technology into the mainstream.

Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On? (1971)

I love this album, even if it’s perhaps partly out of jest with my wife who can’t stand anything Marvin Gaye (she associates him with kitschy ‘love-makin music’). While I’ll agree, the opening sax riff immediately draws the curtains and dims the lights; the mood this album creates is not a sexy one. This is an album born out of concern; this album is more of a conversation.

Marvin Gaye was a Motown super-star; Gaye tunes such as “Heard it through the Grapevine” had been essential in establishing Motown’s producing outfit as industry powerhouses in the early years of the label. Marvin Gaye’s image up to the release of What’s Going On was one synonymous with the image of Motown itself and its imposing founder Berry Gordy. Ben Edmonds describes Motown before What’s Going On as “still serenading teenagers in a maltshop America that no longer existed”.

What’s Going On didn’t resemble one of its routine “teenage serenades”; Gordy was afraid it was a protest song. Because of this Gordy hated the song; perhaps Motown, and its founder, were simply out of touch with the times. In 1969 ‘Obie’ Benson had penned the song after witnessing police brutality in San Francisco. Benson had been a member of the Four Tops, who also turned the song down because it resembled a protest song. Benson had replied, “No, man, it’s a love song, about love and understanding. I’m not protesting, I want to know what’s going on”. This heartfelt question must have resonated with Gaye, who agreed to take the song and made it his very own project. Part of the inspiration behind Marvin Gaye’s ambition as he began to craft an entire concept album around this concept comes from his brother, Francis: a Vietnam veteran that related his war stories to Marvin.

Even with all the emotion wrapped up in this track, Gordy was not convinced that What’s Going On was a safe release. He’s attributed to calling it “The worst thing I’ve ever heard” after hearing it the first time. Gordy refused to release the single. Marvin Gaye famously quit Motown for the Detroit Lions while he played the waiting game with Gordy over What’s Going On’s release. The single was finally released without Gordy’s approval in 1971. It sold like crazy.

What’s Going On
was a great success for Motown and for Gaye as an artist. It shows a maturation of what pop music could accomplish, much like the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds album did in 1966. Like Pet Sounds, there is an orchestral quality to the instrumentation of the album—albeit a much funkier one. It was the product of legendary smoke-filled sessions in the Snake Pit (Motown’s primary studio). Marvin Gaye worked with arranger Van DePitte to create something that “wanted to stay away from anything resembling a standard Motown beat”: a parade of studio musicians was ushered into the Snake Pit to ensure this goal. You can hear Gaye really explore the music. The most defining features of the track were reportedly accidents: such as Gaye’s layered, harmonizing lead vocal that he would use for albums to come or the legendary saxophone riff that starts the album (a warm-up). The musical maturation matched the riskier subject matter beautifully. And Motown’s production muscle was on display like never before. Just the adventurous opening ‘soundscape’ of voices pulls you in immediately.

As a professional this album is a great benchmark of production values and techniques in the early 70s. It serves as my favorite example of Motown’s ‘music machine’: hundreds of producers and songwriters hammering out songs together with an old piano. It’s a good example of artists butting heads with Q&A departments, and a nice anecdote for when the artist turned out to be right. But most importantly, it’s an example of when music can legitimately turn attention towards the state of the world and make people think, What’s Going On?

The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967)

The Velvet Underground is frequently cited as one of the most influential bands in American music. I must painfully admit that even with such clout I had never even heard them at any real length until earlier this year. A brief synopsis of the band sounds like some fantasy that should only exist in my dreams. Andy Warhol describes the VU as “a chance to combine music and art and film all together”, something that definitely delights my existential fancy. I’ve always loved art rock bands and here was the seminal version, so I thought. With my expectations set in the sky I listened to The Velvet Underground & Nico as well as Loaded and was initially thoroughly disappointed. I was expecting something monumental, like my first listen to In the court of the Crimson King, but what I heard initially struck me as watered-down Beatles. A few listens later, I started to get it.

The music of the Velvet Underground strikes me as an artistic experiment. And I think that is exactly the image they wanted to have. Produced by Andy Warhol in his famous New York studio, The Factory, this was a lofty undertaking by a group of artists to make something really unique. I think Andy Warhol had a great amount to do with the artistic framing of the band. The mandate to fuse pop music with pop art was a strong one, one that would help separate the VU from other musical acts of the era. Adding to Warhol’s vision, Lou Reed and John Cale’s idiosyncratic flourishes tied a nice bow on the cacophony of sound that was the Velvet Underground.

For me, the novelty and art in the Velvet Underground’s music comes more from the lyrical content than anything else. Lou Reed’s Dylan-esque ramblings through a laundry list of topics that I’m sure were not yet deemed kosher for musical consumption. Take for instance “Heroin” on The Velvet Underground & Nico, the impact doesn’t just lie within the subject matter but how it’s approached. In an interview for the South Bank Show in 1986, Lou Reed mentioned that a neutral moral stance was important in his music. I think that this sense of moral ambiguity is the biggest contributor to his lyrical success. It’s what makes these little vignettes thought provoking—requiring a little bit more than a surface listen to appreciate. The music plays a huge role interacting with the lyrics in many songs, swelling to manic mood swings and sputtering out with the ebb and flow of lyric. The desire to make each song actually mean something is one that I will always respect in artists. I believe it is this artful approach to lyrics that Lou Reed adopts in The Velvet Underground is worth their place in music history alone.

I find the musical content itself, separate from the lyrics, marks the birth of several trends that would evolve over the years into the infrastructure of punk rock. The music is loud, simple, and made to have a corporeal impact. I find music can usually be placed somewhere on the gradient between what Nietzsche would refer to as Apollonian and Dionysian (coincidentally my favorite Rush album, Hemispheres, is a tribute to this dichotomy). This division is one between Mind (Apollo) and Body (Dionysus) as the two forces that drive man’s productivity. To me, I can enjoy punk rock because it represents a complete swan dive into the Dionysian. For example, Black Flag is never going to be touted as having complex musical ideas; heck, I don’t know if they could even be touted as being able to completely tune their guitars. But, they will continue to be celebrated because they have an intense energy to burn and want to burn their audience up along with it.

Well, before punk rock was blasting audiences around the world the Velvet Underground struck a ‘proto-punk power chord’ with its sonic experimentations. No doubt that John Cale was a huge influence here. Between the constant distorted viola drones and atonal psychedelic freak-outs the Velvet Underground was never afraid of something new. Cale admired many avantgard composers of his day (even studying under La Monte Young). This influence surely effected their artistic direction as a whole. This was a band that wanted to turn things up and make a statement in doing so.

So what is the defining feature here that makes VU so influential as a band? I think it’s their disregard to cater towards any trend that isn’t their own. Even their studio production qualities (or lack there-of) illustrate a desire to be something different than the popular trends around them. This is also a good explanation of why the Velvet Underground never got to enjoy mainstream success as wide as their influence suggests. When you seek out art for nothing more than art’s sake you’re going to loose a large portion of your audience; I find this to be an unfortunate truth. But the people that actually get it, what you’re trying to accomplish, will only love you all the more: I’ll admire quality over quantity any day of the week.